Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2, the first Nasa spacecraft to study atmospheric carbon dioxide has reached the orbit on Wednesday, after the first launch attempt has been cancelled due to technical problems at the launch pad.
The Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2 (OCO 2) will join a line-up of remote sensing satellites circling around the Earth in polar orbit. Positioning OCO 2 at the very front of this satellite train required precise timing of the launch.
OCO 2 is a replacement spacecraft for OCO 1, which was lost in 2009 after the payload fairing of the Taurus rocket which was carrying it failed to separate during ascent.
"OCO 2 is our first Nasa mission dedicated to studying carbon dioxide," Betsy Edwards, program executive at Nasa Headquarters in Washington, told reporters during a prelaunch news conference. "This makes it of critical importance to the scientists who are trying to understand the impact of humans on global climate change."
During its two-year mission, OCO 2 will monitor how the climate change inducing greenhouse gas moves within the atmosphere. The mission will produce the most detailed picture to date of natural sources of carbon dioxide, as well as their "sinks" - places on Earth’s surface where carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere.
"Climate change is the challenge of our generation," said Nasa Administrator Charles Bolden. "With OCO 2 and our existing fleet of satellites, Nasa is uniquely qualified to take on the challenge of documenting and understanding these changes, predicting the ramifications, and sharing information about these changes for the benefit of society."
Orbiting at the altitude of 438 miles (705 km), the spacecraft, built by Orbital Sciences, will collect hundreds of thousands of measurements daily. Its path around the planet will take it over the same spot at the same time every 16 days, allowing scientists to detect patterns in carbon dioxide levels over weeks, months and years.
During the next 10 days, the spacecraft will go through a checkout process and then begin three weeks of maneuvers that will place it in its final near-polar operational orbit at the head of the international Afternoon Constellation, or "A-Train," of Earth-observing satellites.
The A-Train, the first multi-satellite, formation flying super observatory, collects data about the health of Earth's atmosphere and surface environment.
OCO-2 science operations will begin about 45 days after launch. Scientists expect to begin archiving calibrated mission data in about six months and plan to release their first initial estimates of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations in early 2015.
The first attempt to launch the spacecraft was called off on Tuesday due to a problem with the launch pad’s water system, requiring technicians to replace a failed valve.
Nasa's OCO-2 infographic